"This is our most desperate hour." If you have to sum up the mood of the moment, look no further than the words of Princess Leia herself. In her most famous performance – one in which she'd anchor the first three films in the blockbuster Star Wars series, than reprise to rapturous acclaim decades later in The Force Awakens – Carrie Fisher embodied hope in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Whether she was playing it cool in one of Leia's more regal moments, slinging insults and shooting stormtroopers as a Rebel leader or chronicling her real-life battles with addiction and mental illness in her fearlessly funny writing, Fisher was one of film's great heroines, on screen and off. The 10 moments below are our tribute to the great woman's greatest creation. We loved her; she knew.
SPOILER ALERT: Such is the power of Carrie Fisher that she can bring down the house without even actually appearing on screen. The final line of this year's bleak, unique stand-alone "Star Wars story" emerges from the computer-constructed mouth of a young Princess Leia – a single word that the underlines importance of what countless Rebels have died to have delivered to her. Compared to the film's CGI Tarkin, this Leia simulacrum is on screen for just seconds. But her monosyllabic summation of the film's message carries nearly 40 years of audience affection for the character who utters it. It's as if we the viewers have been catapulted to a galaxy, far, far away and a long time ago, when hope was in seemingly boundless supply.
No hug. No kiss. No “all is forgiven.” If you wanted grand gestures and rekindled passion, the reunion of Han Solo and Leia Organa after decades in the characters’ lives (and 32 years in the real world) could be read as anticlimactic. But what we got was better. In her knowing smile, her good-natured ribbing of the scruffy-looking smuggler’s wardrobe and her reaction to the news regarding their wayward son, Fisher made General Leia’s reunion with the love of her life feel achingly, gratifyingly real. When they finally do embrace later in the film, as Solo departs for what winds up being a kill-or-be-killed mission, the actress brings a sadness to the moment that reflects their relationship’s lived-in, torn-and-frayed nature.
If the Star Wars saga is the childhood wish-fulfillment machine critics (both pro and con) have claimed, then people must have wished to be surrounded by completely adorable killing machines. It's Leia who's the first one come into contact with the Ewoks, those teddy-bear guerrilla warriors who help take down the Empire in the final installment of the first trilogy. Fisher plays her interactions with her furry new friends as totally straight and sincere, even when Wicket W. Warwick and friends were at their silliest. She knew it was her job to sell these goofy little guys to the audience – and damned if she didn't handle it like a pro.
Yes, the golden metal bikini usually gets all the press in this sequence – as Rolling Stone's own Return of the Jedi cover made clear at the time, Fisher wore it well. But action speaks louder than compulsory attire, and Leia's coup de grâce here was to grab the chains that held her captive and strangle the slug-like dirtbag who held her captive. "This bounty hunter is my kind of scum – fearless and inventive," Jabba said when Leia first broke into his palace disguised as a mercenary. Buddy, you didn't know the half of it.
For the early part of the first of many Star Wars sequels, Princess Leia is a woman in the denial. Whether she’s shouting the immortal intergalactic diss “Why, you stuck up, half-witted, scruffy-looking nerf herder!” or kissing her own brother (not even George Lucas knew at the time, so she’s hardly to be blamed), the Rebel leader went to great lengths to demonstrate her romantic disinterest in Han Solo. Until, that is, they’re left alone in the disabled Millennium Falcon, when she finally gives in to her feelings for the scoundrel. Fisher intelligently plays the scene as one of the only times in the trilogy where the Princess comes across as less confident and cocksure than her brash love interest – a sign that’s what happening between them isn’t just some temporary bad-boy infatuation. It’s a genuine, off-the-charts chemistry moment – until C-3PO comes along and salts her game, naturally.
Fisher turned Leia into the franchise's resident tough cookie – but the actress knew how to reveal Leia's more vulnerable side as well. Brought to the Death Star's bridge for an audience with its commander Grand Moff Tarkin, she insults one of the galaxy's most powerful people ("I recognized your foul stench when I was brought on board") without breaking either a sweat or her aristocratic Middle Atlantic accent. But when the Imperial bigwig announces his plan to blow up her home planet, the unfeeling facade disappears like a disabled deflector shield. "No," she stammers, "Alderaan is peaceful, we have no weapons, you couldn't possibly – !" She may be a monarch-turned-insurrectionist, but in that moment she sounds like anyone stuck in the terrified bargaining stage of a personal disaster in the making. The negotiation, shall we say, does not end well.
Some viewers of The Force Awakens have made the argument that General Leia's reaction to Han Solo's death was a dropped ball. Why, they ask, did she bypass her old friend Chewbacca and instead comfort Rey, a young woman who was just a stranger to her? Explanations abound, both in-world and meta, but if this is a mistake, it's a beautiful one. Older, wiser and full of faith in both the Force and the eventual triumph of the human(oid) spirit, the General is everything Rey – or anybody – could aspire to be. In putting aside her own grief to embrace a young woman in need of comfort, Fisher's Leia displays the empathy we all wish our elders would show us when we need it most.
The first time we hear Han and Leia have this exchange, she's wearing her heart on her sleeve and he's playing it carbonite-freeze cool. One of the most famous improvised lines in the history of film, the smuggler's response to the Princess's declaration, right before he's placed in suspended animation by Darth Vader, gives Empire a romantic cliffhanger to match all its plot-driven ones. But per usual, Leia gets the last word. Surrounded by elite Imperial soldiers during a critical mission following their reunion in Return of the Jedi, Leia calmly and quietly reaches for the blaster that will save them from capture. "I love you," Han says, his voice filled with what sounds an awful lot like awe. "I know," Leia replies – and you suspect that smile comes from knowing she beat her boyfriend at his own one-liner game.
"Into the garbage chute, flyboy!" If Han, Luke, and Chewie thought they'd find a damsel in distress upon breaking the princess out of the Death Star's prison, they had another think coming. Displaying the same quick thinking and insult-comedy chops that helped her see through Luke's disguise ("Aren't you a little short for a stormtrooper?"), Leia takes charge, blasting their way to freedom via one of the space station's garbage chutes. To be fair, they have a few problems down there. But after that close call, she's elbowing Solo out of the leadership position and busting the balls of a Wookiee ("Will someone get this big walking carpet out of my way?"). The lady has no time for amateur hour, and neither does Fisher, who commands the screen like an actor far older than her mere 19 years at the time. And she's doing it all in an immaculate white dress with cinnamon rolls for hair. A star (warrior) is born.
It's just a tiny blue image projected from R2-D2 in Luke Skywalker's garage, repeating that mysterious phrase over and over. But this was more than just the message that set the plot of the original Star Wars trilogy in motion; this was a sort of magical incantation, one that promised desperation and heroism, saviors with strange names and stakes as big as that whole far-away galaxy. The full version of the holographic communication later unearthed by Luke and Obi-Wan revealed not only the backstory but Fisher's talent as an actor: She sold every bit of George Lucas's jargon-heavy, sketched-out worldbuilding like she was delivering a Shakespeare soliloquy. (The mileage the saga got out of the matter-of-fact, unexplained way she mentioned "the Clone Wars" alone is incalculable.) Many a lifelong love affair with Star Wars, sci-fi, fantasy fiction, and film itself began with these eight words. It all starts here.